The Songbird

Kinder, Gentler Prose (West Country, England; present-day): The Better Angels of our Nature is a phrase first heard in 1861 from our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, at his inaugural address. The soulful message rang out again on December 5th, 2018, a day after The Songbird was released, when historian Jon Meacham eulogized our 41st President, George H. W. Bush, at the Washington National Cathedral. It seems a particularly appropriate phrase to use – as well as Bush 41’s aim of a “kinder, gentler nation” – when thinking about The Songbird, British bestselling author Marcia Willett’s eighteenth novel.

Willett’s trademark is kind, gentle prose set in the peaceful English countryside.

Before you even open the author’s newest book, the cover (like many of her more recent novels) paints a watercolor image that feels good already. During the 2018 holiday season, we’re yearning for kinder, gentler. Though it’s been years since I read A Week in Winter, published in 2003, Willett’s lovely prose left an impression. If this is your first introduction to the warmth of Marcia Willett’s novels, you may want to return to her earlier ones, like I now want to do. Kinder, gentler is a gift.

The Songbird characters are good people (except for a mean-spirited outlier). That doesn’t mean this character-driven story of family relationships, love, and friendship is Pollyannish because these people have real troubles. We, then, can relate to their emotions and situations. Many seem like someone we know, used to know, or wish to know, rendered with grace and old-fashioned values and manners. You will not find any vulgarity or cruelty in the prose.

Cruelty does come, though, from circumstances out of the protagonist’s control. Tim, in his thirties, has decided to take a sabbatical from his marketing job at a London publisher, where he works with Mattie, a publicist. He doesn’t tell her why he needs to leave, but does ask if she knows any place he could “chill for a while. A cottage in the country but not too remote.”

Tim and Mattie are friends with early hints their relationship could go further if he let it, but he won’t, against his own needs, caring more about protecting Mattie, sparing her pain. Mattie, in turn, wishes he’d tell her why he’s leaving, but doesn’t pry. Right away you like them, the way they respect each other, tread gently.

Early on you’ll also learn one of Tim’s secrets: he’s been diagnosed with a cruel illness. It’s scary, made scarier because Tim has no family, no one to be there for him. Just this enormous burden, a time bomb waiting to explode.

Mattie does have an ideal solution for a healing retreat: a cottage in the West Country, where her sister and cousins live. When the novel opens Tim is living in one of the “terraced cottages” owned by Mattie’s cousin Frances Courtney, a retired member of the British Parliament. In his eighties, he’s writing his memoirs alone in the main house, once a farmhouse that goes back to the Napoleonic era. Also on the grounds are three cottages: two he rents out to extended family, the third now to Tim.

Tim finds the serene landscape helps to soften the blow of the heavy burden he’s carrying. He also discovers Mattie’s family is “the family he’s always longed for.” How they’re all related is a bit messy, and each is dealing with their own stages-of-life issues, but we like them a lot too (except for that one.) 

A favorite is Aunt Kat “in her early sixties, a former international ballet dancer and choreographer, tall, graceful, unconventional.” She embraces this quiet landscape surrounded by this little family, nursing the death of her lover two years ago. But she’s not bitter or angry about her significant loss, for she’s someone who exudes a love for life and the arts that’s quite wonderful. Yes, she’s unorthodox, charmingly so, a live-your-life-to-its-fullest person. An antidote for Tim who needs all things life-affirming. Kat also delights us because the author was once a ballerina (noted inside the book jacket), so she conveys Kat’s gracefulness and appeal naturally. 

Kat is living with cousin William, an arrangement that made sense when William’s wife abandoned their twenty-year marriage and the country life for a career in London, where she also cheated on good-natured William, who enjoys simpler pleasures such as singing in a choir. No one likes a manipulator, a betrayer like Fiona, including the reader. As the plot develops, you’ll see her selfishness and deceit come back to haunt her. 

Tim is renting William and Fiona’s empty cottage. The other cottage is being rented by Fiona and William’s son Andy and Charlotte, Mattie’s older sister, whose essentially single-parenting their baby boy Ollie as Andy is in the Navy, away at sea. This little makeshift family makes all the difference in the world for Charlotte (and the others), easing her loneliness and helping out with Ollie. Wooster, her lovable, wagging tail dog, also provides great comfort, epitomizing our need for companionship and why so many of us can’t live without dogs. A “big, solid presence,” dogs love us no matter what. 

What this surrogate family also prizes is Britain’s West Country. Francis’ estate may be fictional, but this area is not. Located in the southwest of England, somewhere near Devon and the moors of Dartmoor, nearby the sea. The author lives in Devon, clearly appreciates its “tranquillity” and unusual beauty.

Widecombe in the Moor, England
By dennisredfield [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tim is not the only character who feels he’s living on borrowed time. Francis is not a well man; everyone’s future is uncertain as no one knows what will happen to the property should he die. Francis, more profoundly than the others, recognizes Tim is a “man with a secret – because “Francis knows all about secrets.” So he takes a special interest in Tim. Tim is also especially bolstered by Aunt Kat, whose “warmth and vitality give him courage. She accepts him without questioning or curiosity about his past. He is Mattie’s friend.”

Which brings us back to Mattie, who finds ways not to just keep waiting in the wings for reticent Tim. Since Mattie is the type of person who “could always make people love her,” says her older, a bit jealous sister, Tim is challenged to stay self-disciplined since there’s chemistry in the air.

Everyone cherishes something about the West Country, but seen through Tim’s lonely, anxious soul, it’s salvation. He marvels at “the peace of the woodlands – the banks of flowering azaleas, the scent of bluebells, the flittering of the birds in the canopy.” He savors the changing spring and summer seasons the novel spans, when sometimes the landscape has a “half-finished watercolor” look; at other times there’s a “radiance in the damp air: a brightness that touches the trembling raindrops with light and gleams on wet green leaves.”

Tim also can’t get over the slower pace that seems to enable so much friendliness and kindness to neighbors and strangers, though this family never treated him like one. An only child, we understand the importance of that for Tim, whose gratitude is profound. 

The West Country and Tim’s newfound family make him feel that maybe, just maybe,“miracles can happen” here. Whether they do or don’t, he and we experience the better angels in us.

Wishing all a kind and gentle holiday season. See you in 2019.

Lorraine

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The Rain Watcher 1

What happens when a family crisis collides with an environmental crisis? (A week in January in Paris, present-day): Despite the rain in the title and the raindrops on the cover, we don’t expect The Rain Watcher to be an urgent call on climate change. What we expect is some sort of a family calamity, not an environmental one happening simultaneously. The combined effect is to humanize the emotional havoc an environmental disaster places on a family already in crisis. Two fictional genres – dysfunctional family fiction and climate fiction inspired by historical facts – double punch this family.

France’s bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay (Sarah’s Key , A Secret Kept, The House I Loved, more) uses a literary style that seems designed to make the reader feel the growing anxiety of the family’s worsening situation as the waters of the river Seine rise and overflow. The prose has a very distinctive quality: long sentences that turn into unusually long paragraphs – one, two, three pages long. The author wants us to feel the panic.

We’re so used to short paragraphs and clipped chapters this literary approach places demands on us; soon it sweeps us along as both disasters unfold, intersect, and devolve. There is, though, brevity in prologues that preface each of the novel’s six lengthy parts. However, it’ll take you most of the novel to nail down the narrator of these prefaces, a young boy, and how he figures into the multi-layered plot.

The last time the Malegarde family of four were all together was thirty years ago. They’re meeting in Paris to celebrate the 70th birthday of Paul, the patriarch, and the anniversary of Paul and Lauren, who planned this reunion for two years to make it happen. They have two children, Linden, in his 30s, and his sister Tilia, 40; her daughter, Mistral, 18, also arrives.

The first thing to know about the family is the names Linden, Tilia, and Mistral are all inspired by Nature. Lime trees are also called Linden, also Tilia in Latin; Mistral stands for a “powerful northwesterly wind.” Their names are connected to a piece of inherited property, “a little paradise on earth.”

Located in the Drone Valley some four hours south of Paris among fields of lavender and farmlands, a beautiful landscape where Paul and Lauren live; Linden and Tilia grew up here. Surrounded by lime trees, one at least three-hundred years old, and an arboretum, both mean everything to Paul. Famously known as Mr. Treeman, he’s an arborist who saves ancient and magnificent trees around the world. “A mystery to his only son,” a mystery to everyone actually, because he prefers trees over people, fanatically. A “silent” man, Linden “has been missing his father’s voice all his life.” He wants to communicate with him, doesn’t know how. (A running theme in the family’s dynamics.)

Trees also enter the picture with the unknown boy narrator whose voice is heard from a treehouse. Each time he appears we learn a little more of his traumatic story, but we don’t understand its relevance to the plot, germane in the ending.

The novel is as much about unlocking the importance of Nature as it is about unlocking the nature of people.

Each relationship in the family is examined, not separately but woven into the flowing paragraphs. Linden is the star. It’s his voice and his relationship with Paul that’s center stage. Linden lives in San Francisco, a photographer as famous as his father. In fact, it was his shot of his father, Treeman Crying in Versailles, that brought Linden overnight fame.

Linden has charisma. “Even people who had barely met him were bowled over by his personality, his kindheartedness, his talent, his sense of humor.” Love and kindness take over when Linden finds he’s the only family member who can, and will, assume the role of managing his distressed family. This does not come easy for him, expressed through his long, searching prose.

Linden left his family when he was a teenager; moved in with his aunt Candice, his mother’s sister, in Paris. He told her he was gay, she loved him “just the same.” Yet he didn’t tell his “nonchalant, exquisite mother” until seven years later expecting she’d react poorly, which she did. He’s never told Paul but suspects he knows about his lover, Sacha. “Never would he have imagined it would be so tough coming back” to Paris as Linden’s regrets and secrets about Candice and a young man resurface and deepen as the flooding paralyzes the city.

All the family members have secrets and regrets. Mother and father, individually and as a couple, are not revealed until the last fifty or so pages.

Tilia too. Tormented by a tragedy in her past, she’s a “failed artist.” She lives in London with her second husband, Colin, a mean alcoholic. Her “life is a disaster,” saved by “magnificent and fearless Mistral,” who “mothers her own mother brilliantly, and has been doing so, it seems her whole life.” Mistral and Linden are close, drawn to each other’s sensitive souls. Mistral is “bubbling” with excitement around uncle Linden so her prose bubbles along. She’s a big support to Linden in the emergency role he struggles with, yet done with great strength under great duress.

“The river has turned into a gluttonous muddy monster … “The river seethes like a hostile reptile beneath leaden skies and the uninterrupted downpour.” A statue, Zouave, marks how high the river Seine rises. The more intense the family’s situation becomes the higher the waters rise.

Statue of the Zouave, Paris
By Yann Caradec [CC BY-SA 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

 

Another tragedy is Paris had warnings: the 1910 Great Flood of Paris, revisited over and over again as people keep wondering if 2017 will be worse than 1910 when the waters rose 28 feet. (2016 flooding in Paris also noted.)

As the city becomes deluged, few can escape. Certainly not this family. Fear, exhaustion, and time feel like an eternity wearing down these characters until they weaken and finally share their innermost secrets, enlightening each other, enlightening us.

How sad that it takes a catastrophe to get the family to open up. Sad because they love each other, in their own imperfect ways, but there’s so much underlying baggage and tension among them they’ve been unable to. The Rain Watcher is a tale of many kinds of love, especially unconditional love and “love unexpressed.”

Human lessons are also viewed through an environmental lens. An historian discusses 1910 vs. 1917 flooding as the world watches the devastation in Paris on TV. The human connection is also told in a message about trees from Linden’s father he hears on a video.

The historian discusses the technological facts that made it easier for people to cope in 1910, but what sticks out is how “people were kinder to one another” compared to today as looters ransack an already ravaged city. And, Paul (who is quite talkative when it comes to trees) says: “trees care for one another … “everything about a tree is slow, how it thrives, how it develops … a tree is the exact opposite of the crazy, fast times we are living in.”

Given the dire warnings on the human toll of global climate change recently reported on, The Rain Watcher cries out on both the personal and scientific front. Tatiana de Rosnay hopes we’re listening.

Lorraine

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Nirvana on Ninth Street 2

A unique historic neighborhood, a unique historical time (Manhattan’s Lower East Side, 1960s to early 70s): This little poetic gem – fifteen short stories – pulses with the beat of an historically important neighborhood: the Lower East Side to many of us, renamed the East Village in the late sixties/early seventies when it was transforming, to glamorize it. Glamour is not what author Susan Sherman has in mind. Her fictionalized characters are meant to bring life to what was lost due to gentrification.

Also a poet and an activist, Sherman lived in this area during this spirited time. Perhaps she even rented an apartment in a tenement building like Rachel, the main character all others revolve around. Rachel’s building, 630 East Ninth Street, looms large, as nearly all the characters are residents in her building. She seems to have known them all. Many were friends, or lovers of her friends; many were artists forced out of Greenwich Village as rents became unaffordable.

The collection opens with a black-and-white photograph of three street signs, pinpointing the corner where East 9th Avenue B, and Charlie Parker Place converge. Streets that run along Tompkins Square Park, with its own legacy of displacement in the eighties and nineties. Five more images, all taken by Colleen McKay, are sprinkled throughout. Her background – along with Rona L. Holub’s who wrote an informative, condensed historical Afterword, and the authors’s –  can be found at the end.

The Lower East Side is famously connected to the immigrants who fled here to escape persecution, violence, and other prejudices – especially Jews from Poland and Russia, as well as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans who were marginalized. Their “desires, frustrations, and rage” immortalized here.

Sherman had a front row seat to witness historic changes. She’s invested in this place, at this extraordinary time, so she writes from the heart with authenticity. Demolishing old buildings, stripping storefronts isn’t, in Sherman’s telling, about new money and upgraded real estate gained from gentrification. What she offers is the other side: a heartfelt tribute to all that was erased that had given the Lower East Side such a strong sense of character and belonging. Today nearly all its historic immigrant/Jewish ethnicity is gone, except for a few remnants like the Tenement Museum and Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Eldridge Street Synagogue
Photo by Jason3091 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The avant-garde artists, photographers, and musicians in these stories helped define this remarkable era: the Sexual Revolution, Civil Rights and Gay Rights Movements, the Vietnam War protests. The author participated in them all. She weaves these significant cultural and societal changes skillfully, lyrically into the fabric of the stories.

While the characters aren’t real, they represent those heady times. They are passionate, unorthodox, artsy, angry, forlorn. Their stories are quite moving. None will leave you wanting; some will sadden you. Together, they add up to a mere 104 pages. A noteworthy literary feat. Even the partially recycled paper the book is printed on, smooth and satiny, adds a special quality to the legacy of those days.

Every character connects to Rachel, so the collection reads like a novella. Rachel imparts her memories of neighbors, friends, and lovers fondly and vividly, fully aware their futures were uncertain. As for Rachel, she’s presently 70, living alone with her cat. Once married, she has no children; loved two women, one she believed was her soul-mate.

Getting back to that opening photograph that pinpoints the section of the Lower East Side the stories are set in: opposite it are two lines of poetry by the Nobel-Prize winning Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. The poem is about the sea. Just a few words yet they convey Ninth Street themes this poet was apparently known for – nostalgia, suffering, the loss of innocence, death.

Understanding the meaning of the sea in the poem is key to understanding Rachel, who keeps imagining the sea as she gazes out one of the eight-windows in her apartment. Rachel’s sea seems to be signaling she’s an “optimist at heart,” prepared to accept whatever her future holds.

A Prologue that’s poetry in prose introduces Rachel, the first of the “dreamer” characters. Her visions are not practical ones; hers are “far-off, spaced out.” Rachel “lived in her dreams,” so we perceive her as a poet of sorts:

“She wondered if birds enjoy flying, or if they do so unconscious of soaring through the wind … she wandered around the great expanse of the heavens as if it were her own backyard, as if she had a backyard. But what did that matter when the sky was the limit.”

And yet, you won’t find Rachel’s memories mystical; they’re as clear as if it were yesterday. These were her friends, her neighbors, and the lovers they, and she, lost. One of the lonesome voices, she manages to keep herself in check by staying busy with a routine. She’s luckier, then, than some of the other outcast characters unable to control dispirited emotions.

Probably the most tragic is Solomon, from the Deep South. An isolated sculptor using scraps of discarded metal to create odd things, expressive of the hatred he endured as a black man in South Carolina. In this welcoming neighborhood, he finds a best friend, CJ, who moved from Harlem when crime was rampant. He’s a woodworker who also creates from discards, but he makes useful things. The two openly share the same girlfriend, a painter. Solomon’s pain and angst is so profound, love and friendship isn’t enough.

A Little Night Music is about a singer who sings loudly to drown out her fears, disturbing her neighbors terribly. Caroline is Rachel’s best friend. She was a tailor like her father, who immigrated here from the Ukraine. It was the only way he could make a living since “Jewish scholars at the turn of the century were not valued for their intellectual skills.” Passion and Peace are two look-alike sisters wanting two different kinds of love.

Published four years ago, Nirvana on Ninth Street is as timely as ever. Poignant messages about immigrants who were poor but worked hard and so they contributed a richness to the Lower East Side gentrification has wiped out. They lived, toiled, and created under such overcrowded conditions they came to know and care for one another. Something many of today’s communities have lost.

The Lower East Side was a unique, we’re-in-this-together, challenged community that gave uprooted people strength and encouragement in spite of their differences. Maybe because of them.

Lorraine

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The Clockmaker’s Daughter

How three centuries of lives connect to an English countryside home (1862 – 2017): Writing is “a lot like assembling a puzzle,” says Kate Morton, bestselling Australian author and Londoner. Yet after five hefty novels, she found crafting her sixth, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, “the hardest novel to write because it has so many strands.” Now she challenges us to figure out how all the character-driven storylines are connected over 150 years, over nearly 500 pages. Not so easy as you can get lost in her gorgeously flowing prose, richly atmospheric with historical threads.

As the title suggests, this puzzle is Time-themed. Packaged in a thousand-piece, high-quality box, the cover image is a “lichen-colored stone” English country estate surrounded by lush gardens, matching stone walls, and beautiful views. The stone – ancient Cotswold Stone – is key to the location: someplace around Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire counties outside of London. A step-back-in-time designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, ideal for puzzling with 21st and 20th century pieces that link to the 19th.

The novel is trademark Morton, to her “obsession with houses, real and fictional.” She also loves the physicality of old houses. Birchwood Manor, the rural “craftsman’s house” at the heart of all the connections, is filled with lyrical physical descriptions like these:

“An embarrassment of chimneys;” “twin gables of the gray slate roof;” and attic views of the “bend in the river” Thames… “silver-tipped” not like the “muddy tyrant” that seethed through London – all giving a “deep sense of contentment.”

Many characters serve to entangle generations to each other, to drive home a message of timelessness. How they link up, mysteries, are the puzzle pieces we’re enticed to put together.

A ghost, our narrator, guides us through the centuries. A reliable voice, assuring us “I remember everything.” Compatible with Morton’s Britain: a “land of ghosts and every acre could lay claim to being a landscape of legacy.”

She is the first character we meet whose spirit resides at Birchwood Manor. She makes her presence in the 1860s. An orphan, thus also the first character to symbolize one of the novel’s themes – abandonment – and how those forsaken feelings never fade away, rather feel the “weight of time.”

This ghost is so secretive no one knows her real name. We get to identify her by a fake one, Lily Millington, adopted in the heat of the moment when she meets Edward Radcliffe, a charismatic artist and member of the Magenta Brotherhood. Fictionalized, it appears, to contrast with the real short-lived yet influential Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from the Victorian era, which is also cited.

Edward’s character meshes with his fellow artists known for: “sensuality and motion. They obsessed over things like enchantment, memory and truth; nature and the meaning of beauty.” So it’s entirely within his passionate nature to intensely, instinctively feel Lily will be “his muse, his destiny” despite his engagement to a high-society woman. Very different from Lily, whose grim and grimy backstory doesn’t equate with a genuine love with someone like Edward, except to escape a harsh life. But that love does endure the test of time, and place.

Initially, Edward paints his stunning model in the studio garden of his mother’s London home. Not enough “heaven-scent” light, so he beckons her to the beauty and privacy of the heavenly countryside of Birchwood Manor, along with his band of artist friends for what turns out to be a life-changing summer.

Lily tantalizes, whispering there’s another reason Edward’s drawn to the estate but it’s “a secret.” Fast-moving events happen in the opening pages – the death of Edward’s fiancé and a jewel theft – but Edward’s secret takes time to surface. The paradox of time: some things move so swiftly they pass us by; others dwell like a broken clock. Memories forgotten; memories everlasting.

Lily and Edward exemplify both. They leap forth, but before we know it they’ve mysteriously disappeared. Edward only reappears in memories the ghost wants to reveal when she chooses to. Periodically she does, poking back into the novel eleven times, after initially appearing in a preface, moving back and forth through time and storylines, taking us right into the present-day, 2017.

That’s when Chapter One begins, introducing Elodie Winslow, a thirty-year-old archivist working for the venerable London firm Stratton, Cadwell and Co. A quiet, thoughtful person, well-matched to archival work, especially investigating the provenance of artifacts – piecing together the past – since it’s twenty-five years since she lost her famous classical cellist mother and has yet to know facts leading to her untimely death. She still misses her terribly, as does her melancholy father, but she’s been overly sensitive to ask him any questions.

Elodie’s story opens when she discovers a box under her desk. Among the contents are a fine leather satchel with sketchbooks inside, and another leather case coveting a lovely framed picture of an arresting woman dressed in white. She judges these items Victorian-aged. Something about the sketches triggers a primal reaction, echoing a fairytale her mother used to tell her. The reader has scant information to go on, but Elodie’s remembrance of a river sticks with us too because on page five our ghost mentions a riverbank. Was the fable imagined or based on reality? How did these artifacts end up at Stratton, who was a Victorian?

Sketches of the house also feel strangely familiar, conjuring the safety and love a mother’s bedtime story can mean to a little girl who came to call it “her secret place.” Faced with a personal need to investigate the past, these historical finds consume her, overshadowing upcoming plans for her wedding in six weeks.

Future mother-in-law, Penelope, overbearing and controlling, is not pleased with how little attention Elodie is paying to the wedding arrangements, constantly calling and interfering, whereas husband-to-be, Alastair, an investment banker on business in New York, is noticeably absent. Mother-and-son suggest a haughty upper-class, unlike down-to-earth, very likable Elodie. We never even meet Alastair, except through Elodie and conversations with her best friend, Pippa.

Pippa is an artist. Art – its beauty and permanency – an ever-present connecting theme.

While the reader wishes Elodie stays around longer than she does, Morton has other goals in mind: other characters with their own stories of loss to heighten how much the past and present converge. They include: The Special Ones from the ghost’s past; Elodie’s peculiar great-uncle Tip who reacts though denies that he recognizes the Victorian photo of the woman dressed in white; Edward’s devoted sister Lucy who turns the house into a proper boarding school for girls, some with their own abandoned stories; others who stay on the estate during later transformations.

After the school closed, the ghost roamed the vacant property. Then the Society of Art Historians bought it, turned in into an artist’s museum. That’s when Leonard arrives to research the mystique of Edward and the house for his doctoral thesis; he also bears a loss from the Great War. Later, a private investigator arrives photographing and searching for something. More: Juliet, a young widow who fled to the house with her three children when London was evacuated during the second war. Memories, stories that span two World Wars.

The ghost watches over all the “visitors,” illuminating what they’re doing at Birchwood Manor: “I have come to understand that loss leaves a hole in the person and that holes like to be filled.” She helps fill these in for us.

When Elodie returns to link the remaining puzzle pieces, we have a light bulb moment and our own sense of contentment.

Lorraine

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Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men

Why undertake daring solo travel to the former Soviet Union republics? (in Central Asia, the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and Russia, 2015 to 2016): Let’s say you have a twenty-eight-year-old friend whose single. She grew up in Boston, currently lives in your Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. What if she told you her “pipedream” was to travel to eleven (for now) of the fifteen countries once part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, the majority still autocratic regimes? By herself. For as long as a year. Your friend is candid, so you’re well aware she’s “insanely obsessed with the Russian language and culture (aka all her boyfriends were Russian),” but you hadn’t realized her obsession mushroomed into an “all-consuming passion” to take this crazy trip. What would you say to her?

Suppose you also knew your friend takes Xanax for anxiety. Why throw herself into such high-risk, high-anxiety situations regardless of her wildest dreams?

Your friend also suffers from motion sickness. She’ll be traveling on planes, trains, cars but figures her Sea-Band bracelets will counteract that. Good remedy, but not nearly good enough for the nitty-gritty of her protracted itinerary you weren’t privy to because she hadn’t planned that far ahead. So of course you couldn’t imagine she’d go trekking by horseback “climbing hills whose surfaces resemble the texture of crumbled paper” into the craggy, ten foot mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Audacious at best, particularly since the friend we’re talking about – Audrey Murray – had an episode of “high-altitude cerebral edema” at fifteen thousand feet.

Add to the list of motion sickness triggers Murray encounters: buses in Kazakhstan that don’t fully stop to let passengers on and off, and a “rickety prop plane” in Tajikistan considered “the most terrifying flight on Earth.”

All this happens to Audrey Murray a mere fifty pages into her 400 page memoir! She always wanted to be a writer. Did she have to go to the ends of the earth to accomplish that?

Murray is someone who walks the talk. “Nerves are the whole point,” she says. Overcoming her worst fears offers her an enormous sense of accomplishment and boost of self-confidence, which she’s in need of when she sets in motion her “dreamy” idea.

The gist of the author’s backstory: Murray was living in New York, then moved to Shanghai for four years SAT tutoring and founding a comedy club. Two years later she’s at a crossroads. Should she settle down, listen to her biological clock, parents, the path her peers were taking, societal expectations? Or, keep pursuing her curiosity and desire “to see life as being about the journey not the destination”?

Murray’s push and pull struggles as she enters her thirties are perhaps universal, but the striking journey she took anything but.

Shanghai is key to understanding why she took this plunge. Murray is obviously not new to throwing herself into the anxiety fire. Stand-up comedy is hard enough without attempting to tell jokes to an audience whose native language is Chinese. Gutsy.

Shanghai is also important because of that boyfriend thing. Murray had two Russian boyfriends – Oleg and Anton. Anton’s the one who haunts her, leaving a “dullness to everything.” They met in Shanghai; he’s also a comedian. Their break up two years before she flew to Kazakhstan to launch her Soviet-inspired trip coincides with those last two unsettling years in New York.

Anton is from Belarus, which accounts for Murray feeling: “of all the countries on Earth, Belarus is the place I’ve longed for the most.” Almost in the same breath she notes it’s “an isolated, authoritarian state said to most closely replicate life behind the iron curtain.” Daredevil that she is, she misses the intimacy of Anton terribly, fears she’ll never find another love like that. The poignancy of these emotions are ever-present. Poignant prose the heartbeat of her debut memoir.

Amidst the seriousness of the trip, might the comedian/author’s prose sometimes be funny? Not laugh-out-loud but in a dry humorous way, witty, self-deprecating, lively, entertaining. An example: When Murray visits Chernobyl in Ukraine – yes, the actual site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – she wonders: “Why am I here?” Precisely the question we keep asking. Why not stop after visiting Ukraine’s National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev? Instead, the author traveled into the Exclusion Zone, to the evacuated town where the reactor sits. Murray’s and our question is the book’s arresting literary hook: what drives someone to venture to dangerous places? Her reply:

“Morbid curiosity? Regular curiosity? Fear of missing out on radioactive waste? Am I just drawn to anything that calls itself abandoned?”

Murray details the history of the disaster. Here’s a synopsis:

Chernobyl: The World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

Given Murray’s unorthodox itinerary, it’s staggering how “severely underprepared” she was. She did not overprepare to lessen anxieties like obtaining, in advance, all the visas she needed! Visas from countries like Belarus and Russia, notoriously difficult to obtain. The “tour fanatic” could have signed up for a tour run by a reputable travel company that would have handled the visas for her.

Prearranged group excursions would mean the author could not have been gone as long she was (nine months by my count), and they cost a small fortune. Though for this independent spirit, feeling constrained may have been the strongest motivator.

You might assume the traveler would have packed as light as humanely possible traversing so many countries, cities, dicey border crossings, hauling luggage on so many different types of transport, trains more than any other. Murray did not pack light. Her oversized baggage drew countless strangers to assist her. Their kindness surprises her over and over again.

The writer is an amiable, romantic soul. Everywhere she goes she meets strangers: from the “hopeful and hopeless” former Soviet places they live in to adventurers from Europe and elsewhere, many couples. All while encountering numerous language barriers (Murray studied Russian for six weeks, but soon learns an hour a day fell woefully insufficient); cultural misunderstandings; and the baffling, constant exchanging of currencies, stunning devaluations when converted. For instance, 200,000 Belarusian rubles equals $1.

The friendliness of foreigners also holds true for the varied hosts of all the accommodations she stays at: hostels, guesthouses, Airbnbs, yurts, a goat-herding camp, and with so-called couchsurfers who open their homes freely to foster authentic cultural awareness. (Can’t say that for the secret police hotel, but miraculously that worked out too.) Murray is on the lookout for connections, be it female friendships or perhaps another Russian love. Wide-open to possibilities, anything could happen.

Like a dreaded travel fear: being kidnapped. As the author describes the frightening scene she found herself alone in, in a self-styled taxi driven by a male with a male friend seated beside him (shared taxis generally the rule), a nightmare she and we conclude was an attempted abduction, not some major language mishap. Harrowing, but it did not deter the intrepid traveler.

Who goes on to ride the longest train route in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway. For a month! Careful to portray only the most salient aspects, we learn there’s six legs on the Mongolia-to-Moscow route Murray chose (three options). Some span as long as twenty-three hours and more, with stopovers at five Russian cities. Except for the final destination, all unpronounceable and unknowable, certainly to me.

In fact, the whole trip is hard to imagine. Making Open Mic Night in Moscow a window into the unimaginable.

Lorraine

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